Residents, Developers Raise Concerns Over New Demolition Ordinance, OK’d by Split Council Vote

Print More

Photo by Steve Owens The Shick House on Grove Street was an example of a home on which the Historical Commission placed a demolition delay in efforts to save it. It was torn down after BB&N could not find someone to move it to another site. The property is now an athletic complex.

Under Watertown’s new demolition delay ordinance, a large number of homes will no longer have to go through the Historical Commission process to do additions or even to tear them down, but those that do go before the Commission could be subject to a much longer demolition delay.

The City Council adopted the changes to the demolition delay ordinance on Aug. 8 on a split vote. Along with extending the maximum demolition delay to 24 months, it also makes it so many properties do not have to go before the Historical Commission (so won’t face a delay), and also adds language to stop projects that remove or change the building enough so it loses the historical significance, called substantial demolitions.

The Historical Commission wanted to increase the maximum demolition delay from 12 months to 24 months in an effort to save historic buildings from being torn down, said Elise Loukas, chair of the Historical Commission.

“The purpose of the delay ordinance is to give people who recently purchased a property or have one under contract time to consider options for preserving the home,” Loukas said. “People made part of their plan to wait out the (12 month) delay (in the previous ordinance). The Commission has been extremely judicious about reviews of the applications.”

One recent historic home on which a demolition delay was placed was the Shick House, which stood on land that Buckingham Browne & Nichols purchased and turned into an athletic field. Efforts were made to find someone to save the house and move it to another site, but they proved unsuccessful. An example of a home that was saved from being demolished is the Orchard House on Belmont Street, which is now part of the Beacon School.

Larry Field, a Senior Planner in the Planning Department, said that unlike many communities, Watertown faces an unusual situation where many single family homes are located in two-family zones, where a two family home can be built by right.

“The strong housing market in Greater Boston has made Watertown an attractive place for older homes to be demolished and replaced by two-family homes,” Field said at the Council meeting. “That is a good thing, in that we need housing, and in many cases that is a very appropriate thing to happen to that property. But at issue tonight is how we can encourage preservation of historic buildings.”

Another intent of the new ordinance is to decrease the number of cases in front of the Commission by having Planning staff review whether the building meets the criteria for being historically significant. If not, the project would not have to go to the Historical Commission for approval.

Homes and buildings that can potentially be historically significant must be at least 50 years old, and meet certain criteria, Field said. The building must be importantly associated with one or more persons or events or with broad architectural, cultural, political, economic, or social history of the city or the Commonwealth, or, the building is historical or architecturally important in terms of period, style, method of construction, or associated with a recognized architecture planner, either by itself or in context with other buildings.

While many homes fall into the 50+ years old category, Field said that few actually will actually go through the Historical Commission process. Since the demolition delay was instituted in 1997, there have been 250 applications, and 38 of those had demolition delays. In most cases, homeowners will have a streamlined process.

“This will save significant time and money for applicants, and also focuses the Commission on the important cases,” Field said.

The proposal, and the timing of the public hearing, drew concern and opposition from several people who spoke at the Council meeting.

John Labadini, president of the Concerned Watertown Homeowners Association, said that he received multiple calls and messages from people in town who are concerned about the changes, and asked if the vote could be postponed by 30 days so people could get a better understanding of the new ordinance.

Steve Corbett, who works on home projects in Watertown and is a former Councilor, said that he worries that thousands of homeowners could have their property rights limited, and might not even know. Particularly, he opposed extending the demolition delay.

“A two-year demolition delay is not reasonable,” Corbett said. “It would make Watertown the most extreme of all surrounding communities. Any viable options can certainly occur in a year.”

John Cimino, owner of a company that both renovates historic homes and also replaces older homes with new ones, said that the delay can be costly. Waiting 12 months to start a project because of the demolition delay costs about $90,000 in interest, he said, so the new delay would double that amount.

Field said that 24 months is the maximum delay, and that the Commission can consider six months, 12 months, or other periods of delay.

The Orchard House on Belmont Street was renovated and now is part of the Beacon School. (Photo courtesy of Joyce Kelly)

City Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli was on the Economic Development and Planning Committee that sent the proposed ordinance to the Council after multiple hearings. He added that developers may not have to wait the entire 24 months (or whatever delay is placed on the property) if they can show that they have “made a continued and bona fide and reasonable effort to find a purchaser to preserve, rehabilitate and restore a historically significant building and that the efforts have been unsuccessful.”  

“All this is asking is to go back to the Commission and say we have done our due diligence, nobody wants to buy it,” Piccirilli said. “The Historical Commission, after six months, can remove the demolition delay. It doesn’t have to wait the full 24 months.”

Some people said they wanted to know more specifics about how the process will work.

Resident Elodia Thomas said that the Council should not be voting on a change impacting so many properties in August, when many people are away. She said people need to know more about whether their properties fall into the historically significant category, and added that the City should have done a survey of properties to develop an inventory of historic homes and buildings before making the change.

Resident Linda Scott said she wanted to know what criteria and documentation will be used when determining if a building is historic and should go in front of the Commission.

Multiple people noted that only one other community in Massachusetts has a 24-month delay — Milton. Brookline and Newton have 18 month maximum delays, Field said.

Loukas called the demolition delay one tool communities can use to preserve historic buildings.

“One reason you don’t see more towns with 24 months is they have other tools,” Loukas said. “Towns like Lexington have multiple historic districts. That means that they can’t do anything with those — it takes a lot to get anything changed in those houses. Those communities don’t need 24 months because they have historic districts protecting all those houses.”

Residents and developers also worried that the new rules about substantial demolitions would make it harder for people to put on an addition, or add a floor to their homes.

The definition of a substantial demolition includes removing 50 percent or more of the roof, removing any portion of the roofline ridge, or removal of an exterior wall.

Councilor Tony Palomba worried that the new rules could make it more difficult for people looking to increase the size of their homes.

“To me that is pretty broad and you could find yourself wanting to expand your house and could find yourself under the substantial demolition definition,” Palomba said.

Piccirilli said that the intent of the ordinance is to encourage people to expand their homes, rather than to tear it down and build a bigger one. He added that the rules about whether a building proposed for demolition has to go to the Historical Commission for review also apply to substantial demolition projects.

“That doesn’t make it a historic preferably preserved building that automatically gets the demolition delay,” Piccirilli said, who added that the Planning staff would review to see if the building is historically significant and if not the project would not be subject to a delay. 

The substantial demolition section is aimed at projects that come into the Planning office as renovation projects, but the result changes the building so much that it is no longer historic, Field said.  

“We want homeowners to renovate their home, that’s not a bad thing. Often it is the right thing to do: add a floor or an addition,” Field said. “(The new ordinance) is not aimed at that. It is aimed at an acquisition, taking a one family and go to a two-family and demolishing that (one family) completely. We have some instances where the renovation application goes so far that it transforms the character of the building.

City Manager George Proakis, who worked in the planning departments in Somerville and Lowell for 20 years before coming to Watertown, said that a challenge he has faced is that most demolition ordinances in Massachusetts date back to the 1990s, and “a lot of them came off a state template that, quite honestly, is just not that great.”

He said the new ordinance creates an “off ramp” for projects that may meet the age requirement, over 50 years old, but are not historically significant.

“If you have a 1920s era garage, yes technically it falls under the ordinance but there is nothing significant about it,” Proakis said. “Having a subcommittee or staff committee or some group say you don’t need to go to the Historical Commission is a very valuable addition.”

The proposal did not sit well with City Council President Mark Sideris. He noted that the State recommends an 18 month delay, Cambridge has a 12 month delay. While there are some improvements to the process in the new ordinance, Sideris said he did not like the extended demolition delay.

“The point I am trying to make is we’ve done many demolition delays. They haven’t resulted in us saving houses,” Sideris said. “I’m not supporting adding another 12 months to let houses sit, rot, grass growing around it and houses falling apart, just for the sake of adding 12 months. I don’t see where that makes sense.”

The Council approved the new ordinance by a vote of 6-3, with Emily Izzo, John Airasian, and Sideris voting “no.”

8 thoughts on “Residents, Developers Raise Concerns Over New Demolition Ordinance, OK’d by Split Council Vote

  1. The Demolition delay should have been cut in half to six month and the Commission should have had to show significant evidence that the house warranted the delay, within 14 days of a request for permit to demolish is submitted. And if 6 month delay is granted, at the end of that six months, the property is found to be historic and the delay is denied, the town should be forced to pay every last penny to homeowner or lost resale value because it can no-longer be demolished. Otherwise it’s nothing short of theft.
    IF you think it’s historic….. BUY IT YOURSELF AT FULL MARKET VALUE Otherwise keep your thieving government hands of private property. Every Councilor that voted for this is guilty of grand theft and belongs in jail for grand larceny.
    This is an insane infringement on private property rights. It’s the kind of violation that motivated the Sons of Liberty to start a revolution against the British Crown

  2. I am personally thrilled to see this revision of the Watertown Historical Commission ordinance. I fully acknowledge that not everyone in Watertown wants the same type of housing. But I do know that there are quite a number of people in Watertown who share my preference for old houses, original woodwork and the character that is found in a restored historic house. Personally, I have not lived in a house newer than 1920 for all of my adult life. This is one of the many appeals of Watertown and part of the reason we have lived here for 30 years. There are still so many interesting old houses, mixed pleasantly in with new and renovated homes. The current rate of demolitions and new structures seems a bit alarming, so hopefully, this new ruling will slow things down a bit.

    The thing about demolition is that once an old house is torn down, all of those historic features are gone forever. My neighborhood spent over a year trying to preserve an American Foursquare house built in 1909. The historic commission granted a 12 month demolition delay, but the contractor who had bought the house simply rented the property out and waited out the year. The house was then torn down and replaced by a very modern structure. What’s done is done and in the end, we have lovely new neighbors, but the lovely natural woodwork, detailed railings on the stairs, fireplace and mantel and all of the other very special details of the 1909 house are gone. Let’s not loose too many of these other historically significant treasures in our town!

    • “The current rate of demolitions and new structures” is occurring because investors and homeowners are *upgrading* existing houses which appear to have been poorly maintained for many years. I witnessed the “before” and “after” states of 5 such houses in my own neighborhood over the past few years.

      Also, the interior features of older houses which you mention are nice but invisible to the public and, by themselves, do not make a structure “historic.” If a structure doesn’t meet the definition of a historic structure under city law, why are you suggesting that your interior design preferences should be imposed on others?

      • Sorry, but you completely missed my point.

        There are many people like me in town who appreciate the unique character of these interior features and want to live in these houses. My statement in no way imposes my preference on others. If individuals, developers and investors don’t appreciate historic structures, don’t buy them.

        This new ordinance tightens the criteria defining historic houses, so fewer structures will be affected by this level of review, but the few that will be considered are probably very special.

        Another point about the value of older construction is that I have learned from several contractor/carpenters that we know, that many of the materials and old wood in historic structures is far superior to the new materials available today. As I said, once it’s gone, it’s gone.

  3. Fewer houses, longer delays works for me. The 1902 house at 256 School Street, one of a matching pair of Victorians in the Oakley neighborhood, was in disrepair, but not beyond repair. The Historic Commission delayed demolition for a year, but the new buyer waited out the moratorium and took it down in barely a day. Construction is taking considerably longer, and the style is radically different. I support homeowner rights AND historic sensibilities. If any property was worth preserving, this one was. Fewer properties, longer delays might have preserved it.

    • do you know it was not beyond repair? What criteria are you using for stating that the property was worth preserving? Thank you.

      • I based my opinion on photographs taken when the house was on the market. They could be misleading, but the house had long been occupied by the previous owner. It might have needed a lot of work, but that’s to be expected of a 120 y.o. house. If the buyers were willing to wait out the year-long delay before demolishing (plus the year-long construction), they surely could have waited for all necessary repairs before moving in.
        I consider the house worth preserving on the same merits as listed in the proposal: age, architectural style, etc. As I wrote the first time, if this proposal makes it easier for homeowners to alter or even demolish their own property, while saving only those houses with genuine merit (as defined), then it serves an invaluable purpose to homeowners, their neighbors, and neighborhoods.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *